Composer-bassist Ben Allison loves to tweak conventions and play on the margins of genre, but he never sacrifices listener accessibility. On The Stars Look Very Different Today, that means churning up a spectral, sci-fi froth of rock, techno and twang via a quartet of two guitarists (longtime cohort Steve Cardenas alongside Brandon Seabrook), Allison on bass, and Allison Miller on drums.
As with much of Allison’s recent fare, kitsch and creativity are intertwined with nerdy cleverness. Word associations are rampant, beginning with the title borrowed from a David Bowie lyric. “Dr. Zaius” is named after the orangutan from Planet of the Apes, but ambles along with a Midwestern gait more reminiscent of Bill Frisell or Pat Metheny in prairie mode. “The Ballad of Joe Buck” (named after a 90′s country-punk musician who frequently lengthened his moniker to Joe Buck Yourself) features Seabrook on banjo, deployed in a pluck-happy manner similar to Allison’s past use of oud and kora players. It starts off as cornpone but quickly ladles in rich blues, bluegrass and jazz elements, with some closing chamber hues via Allison’s bowed bass.
Of the two guitarists, Cardenas comes off as a softer, nylon-stringed stylist, while Seabrook is more aggressive and rock-oriented. It’s a compelling blend shown off to good effect during the fluid counterpoint on the opener, “D.A.V.E.” (or Digital Awareness Vector Emulator), and “Neutron Star” which begins as a Feelies-style jam but quickly orbits and expands around a recurring riff from Cardenas. Repetition is also used on the brusquely melodic “Kick It, Man,” with both guitarists in fine, albeit contrasting, form.
Fans of Allison’s older, more overtly jazz material will miss the lack of improvisational interplay, largely absent save for “No Other Side,” which is highlighted by Allison’s woody bass lines. To emphasize the stylistic departure of Stars, Allison remakes “Swiss Cheese D,” from his 2001 Riding the Nuclear Tiger album, replacing the front-line horns in the original version with fuzzed guitars and upping the tremolo thwack of his bass strings. And for the finale, “Improvisus,” Seabrook moves to his laptop for a gizmo-laden send-off.